Tag Archives: Early English Octavos

A 17th century defence of red hair

While cataloguing some of our early English books, I came across an interesting volume by one Obidiah Walker, Periamma epidemion, or, Vulgar errours in practice censured, published in 1659. The work includes a curious chapter entitled, “A censure of the epidemicall practise of reproaching red-hair’d men.”

“Each man disparageth his fellow-creature,” says Walker, “and gratifies his haughty humour in the derision of his brother. And this is often done upon such trivial grounds, that a due perpension would cause an abashment in the face of the practiser. My present instance shall be in a common yet causeless calumniation: viz. the vilifying of red-hair’d men, the putting of disesteem upon persons, merely because of the native colour of the excrement of the head.”

On reading further, I was intrigued to learn that throughout history redheads have often been singled out for persecution. During the height of the witch trials in Europe, for example, red hair was considered evidence of witchcraft. Judas Iscariot was often depicted with red hair in Renaissance art and the Spanish Inquisition even suspected that redheads had been marked by the fires of Hell itself!

Walker makes it his duty to put an end to these prejudices: “It is then manifest, that they that laugh at red hair are tickled by the Devill: that they commit a greater outrage against the head then the Scythians did, who converted into drinking-cups the skulls of their more irefull enemies.”

He offers a spirited defence of red hair, which, we are assured, is neither a disease of the body nor a sign of the Devil. He lists some famous redheads and points out that red was considered by the Spartans to be the manliest colour, while Roman women enhanced their beauty by dying their hair ginger. Walker’s final thoughts are as apt today as they were in his time: “I could wish that the minds of men were of a more serene and dovelike constitution: that what the ingenious Des Cartes abhors in Philosophy, might not take place in Morality, to wit, that men would not hoodwink themselves with their own prejudice.”